The New York Islanders and Florida Panthers face off in a best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifying series, starting on August 1.
NewYorkIslanders.com is breaking down keys to the series in advance of Game 1. Stay tuned to NewYorkIslanders.com for news, features, video and more from the Isles-Panthers series.
1. ISLANDERS DEFENSE VS PANTHERS OFFENSE:
The Islanders-Panthers series presents a clash of styles, as Barry Trotz's defensively-focused Islanders team goes up against a high-octane Panthers squad.
The Isles allowed the ninth-fewest goals against per game (2.79) this season, and were fifth in the league prior to Adam Pelech's Achilles tendon injury. Trotz's Isles are known for their structure and commitment, content with giving up low percentage shots from the outside and protecting the middle of the ice. They led the league in blocked shots (1,153) and finished first in hits/60 with 27.71 (1,915 total, which was second). The Isles defense also looked stingy in a 2-1 exhibition win over the Rangers, holding the league's fifth-ranked offense to one goal - and some long stretches without a shot on net.
"You look at our team, we've been a good defensive team since Barry has stepped in," Jordan Eberle said on the last day of Training Camp.. "The fact that we have that foundation, the fact that we know positionally how we need to play in order to win. If we can stick to that, it'll definitely help us win some games."
Offensively, the Isles were 22nd in the NHL with 2.78 goals per game, despite finishing tied for third in high-danger chances at 5-on-5. While the Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle line was potent heading into the pause, they are a team that scores by committee. The magic number is three, as the Isles are 31-3-5 when scoring three or more goals this season. They may not blow teams out, but as Trotz and Lou Lamoriello often say, you just need to score one more than your opponent.
The Panthers play an opposite game, adopting more of a run-and-gun approach. They were the sixth-highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.30 goals per game, while giving up the third-most goals-per-game (3.25), ahead of only Detroit and Ottawa.
While the Isles score by committee, the Panthers offense is a little more top heavy. Jonathan Huberdeau was tied for 10th in the NHL with 78 points (23G, 55A), while Aleksander Barkov's 62 points were tied for 30th. The Panthers have five 20-goal scorers: Mike Hoffman (29), Evgenii Dadonov (25), Huberdeau (23), Barkov (20) and Noel Accari (20) and two defensemen with 40 points in Keith Yandle (45) and Aaron Ekblad (41).
"We know what they bring, they have a serious top-six, one of the best in the league," Barzal said.
Florida plays a less-physical game than the Isles, as they are 27th in the NHL in hits (1,247) and hits/60 (17.87), but are willing to block shots, as they finished 12th with 978.
If both teams play to their strengths, it'll make for an interesting push-pull, especially in a shortened series.
Perhaps the biggest unknown in the NHL return is how every team will react to such a long layoff. The transition from training camp to playoffs will be a sharp one, especially with only one exhibition game separating them. Is there an advantage for an offensive team vs a defensive team? The Isles had some differing opinions.
"Every year at the start of the year, it seems to me like offense is a little bit sloppier," Eberle said. "Especially when you look at the special teams, the power play isn't clicking as good as it needs to be and on the penalty kill, hard work beats it out."
"It probably doesn't matter either way since so much time has passed," Brock Nelson said. "You want to try to find a healthy combo of both as quick as you can now. You can tighten things up, and lock things up defensively and get good goaltending and ride that, but on the flip side you want to get all your weapons going offensively. It's hard to say. One team might have been an offensive powerhouse early in the season, but so much time has passed things might have changed a little bit. It's hard to say."
The Isles scrimmaged four times in camp and Trotz is happy with the detail and pace in the Isles practices, but camp scrimmages lack the brutal physicality of the postseason, which will ramp up immediately.
Trotz has done what he can to prepare his group, like holding scrimmages on consecutive mornings to mimic the noon back-to-back starts in Games 2 and 3. The Islanders coach has preached controlling what his team can control, like their work ethic. In exhibition play, the Isles looked like their old selves vs the Rangers, clamping down defensively, playing with pace and attention to detail.
"I thought we had really good pace in our scrimmages back in New York. It was easy to translate that to today's game," Anthony Beauvillier said after the game. "We're just trying to get ready for Saturday for the real bullets. It'll help everyone for games moving forward."
The Panthers lost 5-0 to Tampa Bay in their lone tune-up, albeit without their top defensive pair of Aaron Ekblad - who is expected to play Game 1 - and MacKenzie Weegar. Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville called the exhibition contest a "wake up call."
Time will tell whose game clicks faster once the play-in round starts, but Cal Clutterbuck said the Isles are not going to allow anyone to "out-prepare" them.
3. GETTING HEALTHY/ISLANDERS DEPTH
If there was a benefit to the Islanders long layoff, it was their ability to get healthy. The Isles played the second half of the regular season without Adam Pelech, the last month of the season without Casey Cizikas and the last three games without Johnny Boychuk, who suffered a nasty skate cut to his eyelid. All three players are healthy and raring to go.
The Islanders made several additions with Pelech and Cizikas out, adding veteran defenseman Andy Greene and two-way center JG Pageau. Greene, who looked very solid vs the Rangers, compliments an already deep d corps, while Pageau bolsters the Islanders down the middle. In Pageau, the Isles have added one of the league's top-30 faceoff men, and the versatile center is expected to play on the power play and penalty kill.
The Islanders have enviable center depth in Barzal, (team-high 60 points), Nelson (team-high 26 goals), Pageau, (26 goals this season between the Isles and Ottawa), and Cizikas, who anchors the identity line and PK. That gives the Isles three lines with centers who have some pop and another with a physical and defensive focus. Setting the centers also has the secondary effect of putting Derick Brassard and Josh Bailey back in their natural positions on the wing.
The Islanders may not have a runaway superstar like Connor McDavid, but their team approach allows Trotz to roll four lines and three D-pairs with confidence. With expanded rosters, there will be plenty of eager Islanders waiting to crack the lineup as well.
For all the things that are unusual and different about a pandemic playoff, one constant remains; the deciding factor of this series could come down to goaltending.
The Islanders have employed a two-goalie system for much of the season, with Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss alternating the first 33 games of the season, with a less-rigid split in the second half.
Varlamov (19-14-6, 2.62 GAA, .914 SV%, 2 SO) got 10 more starts and had a slight statistical edge over Greiss (16-9-4, 2.74 GAA, .913 SV%), but Greiss has stronger career numbers vs the Panthers. Either way, the Isles will have a capable goalie in net and the depth in net could come in handy should one netminder become unfit to play. Both goalies saw action on Wednesday night, with Varlamov stopping all 19 shots in 40 minutes of action, including a throwback two-pad stack on Jesper Fast, while Greiss stopped seven-of-eight shots in the third.
"My goaltending with Varly and Greisser, we're pretty set," Trotz said. "I'm looking and the schedule is not normal. We're playing a back to back. I have the luxury of using both. I have the luxury of starting either one in Game 1… I could throw a dart at a dartboard and I'd feel comfortable."
In Florida, there's a clear number one in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Russian netminder is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner is could be the X-Factor for the Panthers.
Bobrovsky's first year in Florida fell short of the expectations that come with a seven-year, $70M contract, as he posted the highest GAA (3.23) and second lowest SV% (.900) of his career. That's still no reason to take Bobrovsky lightly. The 31-year-old has a 16-10-0 career record vs the Isles, with a 2.18 GAA, .928 SV% and three shutouts and season he posted a 2.05 GAA and a .938 SV% in a pair of losses to the Islanders.
"He's a goalie that can steal you a game so we have to be sharp," Barzal said.
Bobrovsky stopped 29-of-34 shots vs the Lightning in exhibition play. If he plays like he did in Columbus, continues his usual clip against the Islanders or replicates his playoff performance from last spring, Bobrovsky could have a very large impact on the series.
5. SPECIAL TEAMS
Statistically, the Panthers have the advantage on the power play. Florida is 10th in the league at 21.3%, while the Isles are 24th at 17.3%.
Fewer calls (aka playoff hockey) could benefit the Islanders, who relied much more on their five-on-five game throughout the season. The Isles had a league-low 168 power-play opportunities, 16 fewer than 30th-ranked Anaheim and 43 fewer than the Panthers.
Florida's top power play is also loaded, with Barkov, Dadonov, Hoffman, Huberdeau and Yandle all hitting the ice together. Hoffman and Dadonov each recorded 11 power-play goals this season, which tied for 11th in the NHL, while Huberdeau's 29 power-play points ranked fifth in the league. Barkov and Huberdeau have practiced on different lines throughout training camp, so the Islanders would like to see them together as little as possible.
The Isles have an edge on the penalty kill, as their shorthanded unit is 15th (80.7%) while Florida is 20th (78.5%). Having Pelech back, as well as Cizikas and Clutterbuck in the lineup at the same time since Dec. 19, should benefit the PK, though the Isles shorthanded until was certainly capable from Dec. 19 (when Clutterbuck suffered a wrist laceration) onward, killing at 81.4%.
Both the Isles and Panthers were among the five least-penalized teams during the season.